Elections are scheduled to take place in Pakistan - one of the world's most troubled democracies - on May 11.
A little over 85 million people are registered to vote. The largest chunk, 20%, is the 31-40 year group.
The world is watching.
On Sunday, the caretaker prime minister's name was announced: a retired judge, Mir Hazar Khan Khoso. This choice is significant because the politicians could not agree on it unanimously and had to give the list of nominees to the election commission to finalise. Khoso is from our most ignored province/state, Balochistan.
Khoso will, as my newspaper The Express Tribune put it, over see "the first democratic transition of power in a country which has seen three military coups and four military rulers" in its 66-year history.
Indeed, the day the caretaker PM was announced, a former military dictator, former president General (retired) Pervez Musharraf, arrived in Karachi to hold a rally. Barely anyone turned up.
It promises to be an exciting time for journalists. We are all waiting to see how the new election rules will benefit the country. Our chief election commissioner, Justice (retired) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim is an honest man who has battled through to maintain the commission integrity.
The most interesting changes have been made to the nomination papers. Anyone hoping to stand as a candidate has to give their financial history, which will be cross checked by the Federal Board of Revenue, State Bank of Pakistan and National Database and Registration Authority. They will see if the candidate or their dependents has defaulted on loans, taxes or other government dues. Given that corruption has plagued the country and the same faces keep returning, it will be interesting to see how many names are discarded and potential candidates fall by the wayside.
Security is a huge concern for everyone during this election. There are several areas where it is not clear how people will be able to cast their vote. One of them is the southern province of Balochistan where I have heard women's identity cards are kept by their men and they aren't allowed to cast their vote themselves. Similarly, there is my city, Karachi, where spasms of violence run through it depending on which political party is upset. We are also worried about Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa where the Taliban are active. Will they let people vote?
The old faces are around but there are new faces too. Here are just a few of the parties to watch (I will be updating this list):
- Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI): Run by former cricketer Imran Khan, this party emerged from relative obscurity in October 2011, as my newspaper's executive editor Muhammad Ziauddin puts it. The party is still struggling to gain grassroots support. But as it is making extremely savvy use of social media it has attracted the youth vote bank. It is all over Twitter and Facebook. In fact if you say anything against the party on Twitter, its trolls will bombard you.
- Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP): Benazir Bhutto's party, now run by her husband Asif Zardari and son Bilawal. Still very much a family affair that relies on the Bhutto charisma. It has a heavy vote bank in rural areas. It was voted into power in 2008, after BB's assassination in 2007. It has had five years in power and has achieved much but has been dogged by allegations of corruption and bad governance.
- Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz: This Punjab-based party has at its head the former two-time prime minister Nawaz Sharif. This is the best profile of him and his conservative but business-friendly party's history.
The others are:
- Awami National Party (ANP): Based out of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province that borders Afghanistan. Its leaders have been mercilessly targeted by the Taliban.
- Jamaat-e-Islami (JI): A rightwing party with historical roots. Has generally not been active.
- Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q): Considered weak and a party of turncoats.
- Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM): Led by a leader in self-exile in London, Altaf Hussain, this party is particularly strong in Karachi. It has a progressive liberal anti-Taliban stance, is pro-women and pro-youth and is known to champion the cause of the middle class. But it has been dogged by allegations of being involved in Karachi's bloodletting.
I am also worried about how extremist outfits will figure as characters in this election. In particular, I am watching the area in southern Punjab called Jhang. It is from here that Sipah-Sahaba founder Maulana Haq Nawaz Jhangvi's emerged. The Sipah is a militant outfit that targets the Shia minority. It was banned in 2012 but re-emerged under a new name: Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat (ASWJ). Its new chief Maulana Ahmed Ludhianvi may stand this time round.
Reuters has pointed out something important worth mentioning here. "Government finances may also be approaching crisis point," the news agency said on March 18. "In March, the Asian Development Bank said Pakistan has reached a critical balance of payments situation and will need another package from the International Monetary Fund, this time of up to $9 billion, before the end of the year."
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